Atherosclerosis morphology and pathogenesis
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Atherosclerosis is a very common and important disease being the most important cause of mortality in Brazil. Indeed, in 1995, 23.3% of deaths, all ages, in our country, were the consequence of atherosclerosis. This percentage grows to 26.3% for S. Paulo and 32.7% for Rio Grande do Sul. Morphologically, there are 3 main types of lesions: fatty streaks, fibrous plaques, and complicated lesions. Fatty streaks are inocuous and occur early in life. In some persons, with age, they change into fibrous plaques that may lead to stenosis. They also may become complicated by erosion, calcification, hemorrhage and thrombosis. Atherosclerosis is initiated by endothelial functional alterations responsible for increase in permeability to macromolecules, adhesion, and migration of monocytes-macrophages and lymphocytes plus recruitment of platelets and smooth-muscle medial cells. Adhesion molecules, cytokines, growth factors, and free radicals are locally synthesized, favoring proliferation of extracellular matrix and progression of the lesion. Experimental, clinical, and epidemiological evidence point to the importance of lipids, mainly cholesterol-rich low-density lipoprotein (LDL), as one of the most important molecules involved in the genesis and progression of atherosclerosis. Patients with a genetic disorder of cholesterol metabolism (familial hyperlipidemia), caused by a decrease in the availability of receptors for LDL, develop severe atherosclerosis early in life. A series of other factors, such as age, diabetes melitus, diet, hypertension, lack of exercise, elevated hemocysteinemia, immunological disorders, and coagulation instability, are related to the progression of atherosclerosis. All of them are capable of altering the endothelium or increasing the offer of LDL. All the above-mentioned factors are systemic; but atherosclerosic lesions are focal, located at preferential sites such as the emergence of colaterals, bifurcations, and curvatures of arteries, all areas in which the laminar flow is disturbed. In these areas shear stress is diminished favoring the prolongation of permanence time of lipid particles, cells, cytokines, growth factors, etc., in the vicinity of the endothelium. Moreover, the endothelium has sensors that act as transducers of mechanical forces in biological responses. Experimental data demonstrate that the number and quality of adhesion molecules, cytokines, and growth factors synthetized, as well as the local production of radicals, and pro and anticoagulation factors may change with shear stress favoring or not the local establishment and progression of atherosclerotic lesions.